This year marks the 10th season of the Ancora String Quartet, in residence at the First Unitarian Society. To launch this anniversary season, the quartet decided on a theme for their new series of concerts: Friends.
The two works on Saturday night's program embodied two different kinds of friendship they have in mind.
Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, known as the "Harp" Quartet for runs of pizzicato arpeggios in the first movement, is a special friend to the quartet as a composition. It was one they played six years ago, when their membership was completed by cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. The Ancoras dug into it anew with gusto and affection, relishing this old friend's mix of beauty, wit, and very intricate part-writing. They have set high standards for themselves already in playing Beethoven, and this vibrant performance reaffirmed those standards.
Fine as was the Beethoven performance, what followed was even more exciting. Another category of friends being celebrated is that of guest performers, players whom they have come to know, and several of whom join them in concerts this season. For this occasion, it was Prof. Myung-Hee Chung, the distinguished, Korean-born pianist of the UW-Whitewater faculty. Prof. Chung joined the Ancoras in one of the great masterworks of chamber music, the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, by Brahms.
Theirs was an absolute powerhouse of a performance. The mighty first movement was by itself testimony to Brahms's capacity to compose truly passionate music -- passion that was caught in full measure by the players. The second movement simply glowed with radiant lyricism and warmth. The "scherzo" third movement was revealed as something like a manic march, or anti-march. And the final movement was a compelling series of arguments about what to do with a theme, arguments that repeatedly rose to anxious outbursts and veritable Gypsy frenzies.
I don't think I have ever heard the Ancoras play better. And I think part of their success was owed to their visiting friend. Brahms usually wrote the piano parts in his chamber works for himself to play, in his own burly and assertive style. Pianists today are frequently tempted to run away with such works, turning them into virtual concertos, subordinating the other instruments. Not so Prof. Chung, who was a true collaborator, blending into the ensemble in ways that only urged on the quartet to excel itself in a transcendent rendition.
But then, after all, what are friends for?